Return to VOC Historical Society home page
JANSZOON AND THE DUTCH EXPLORATION OF AUSTRALIA
Anglocentric claim that Captain Cook "discovered" Australia
still has wide currency. A more insidiously anglocentric fable accepts
that Dutch mariners were on the Australian coast before Cook's time but
characterises those mariners as clumsy navigators who stumbled on
Australia's west coast while sailing to the Indies intent on trade.
were cases of VOC ships running too far east and meeting the west coast,
in four cases with disastrous results. The sensational horrors of the
Batavia wreck attract much attention and obscure the less sensational
fact that VOC mariners engaged in deliberate and accurate exploration of
Australia's northern, western and southern coasts (plus Tasmania).
has heard of Francois Thijssen? Almost no one. Yet, back in 1627, in
command of the VOC ship t'Gulde Zeepaert, he explored a full 1800km of
the southern coast from Cape Leeuwin to about where Ceduna now stands.
who have heard of Duyfken and Willem Janszoon usually repeat the story
first put forward by Matthew Flinders that Janszoon reached the Cape
York Peninsula but mistook it for part of New Guinea. Flinders, who
admired the Dutch navigators, penned that story about Duyfken in the
cabin of Investigator with little resource for research. The continuing
popularity of the story is part of the prevailing characterisation of
the Dutch exploration as bumbling and accidental, quite different from
the noble work of dedicated Royal Navy officers.
fact, Willem Janszoon was sent by the VOC on a deliberate voyage of
exploration which he carried out with great skill and courage. Though he
was on the Cape York coast during the northwest monsoon, the stormy
wet-season, when it was a dangerous lee shore, he produced a detailed
chart easily reconcilable with a modern chart and better than anything
produced until the 19th century. It is true that he wrote the
name Nova Guinea on that land we call Cape York Peninsula and this has
been taken to show that he thought it part of the island we call New
Guinea. But for Willem Janszoon, an educated and expert navigator at the
beginning of the 17th century, "Nova Guinea" had a
most accurate and up-to-date maps of the world then available were
produced in the Netherlands by cartographers including Plancius, Hondius,
Ortelius and Flanders-born Mercator. What lands existed to the south and
east of the Spice Islands was a matter of geographic speculation. All
cartographers agreed that there was a great southern continent filling
much of the southern hemisphere. Perhaps following information provided
by Indonesian mariners, it was agreed that a large promontory of the
southern continent, or perhaps an island separated from the rest of the
continent by a long narrow strait, lay to the southeast of the Spice
Islands. Ortelius drew it as an island but explicitly wrote on his map
that it is not known whether it was an island or an integral part of the
was speculated that King Solomon's fabled gold mines were there— that
like Guinea in west Africa it would be a source of much gold — that it
would be a "new Guinea". That was the unknown Nova Guinea that
Janszoon was sent to search for and found. It lay entirely in the
southern hemisphere, further south than the island that later became
known as New Guinea. Janszoon himself explored parts of our New Guinea.
He knew it by a Portuguese name "Os Papuas". Its northern
coast was already known in Janszoon's time and it lay in the northern
hemisphere, a long way from the cartographer's hypothesised Nova Guinea.
but, but, say the Captain Cook cheer squad, even if Janszoon had another
understanding of "Nova Guinea", he mistakenly thought Cape
York (his Nova Guinea) was joined to our New Guinea. There is no
evidence at all for that claim and a good deal of evidence against it.
Janszoon's chart definitely shows no connection between Cape York and
land to the north. It does show an accurate charting of Torres Strait.
We can be sure that he wasn't just there for an afternoon. He was there
for some time carrying out a survey. As a clever and experienced mariner
he would have noted the strong current running through the strait. He
would have understood that it was a strait leading to a wide sea, not a
bay or a river mouth.
in 1616, approaching the Indies from the Pacific apparently had advice
that one could sail south of New Guinea but it would be dangerous.
Carstenszoon was sent in 1623 to make a further survey of the strait,
but being more prudent than valiant he gave it a wide berth. Tasman was
also sent to look for the strait and prudently gave it an even wider
berth in contravention of his orders. It was Tasman who suggested that
there was no strait, just a shallow bay. However, no reputable Dutch map
showed Cape York joined to New Guinea before Tasman's voyage and even
after Tasman not many cartographers accepted the connection.
Willem Janszoon, Nova Guinea was a part of Terra Australis. Its western
coast lay about 800 miles east-southeast from the Banda islands. He
searched for Nova Guinea and found it where it was supposed to be. He
knew he had found a part of the Great South Land. It was the beginning
of the mapping of Terra Australis by Europeans and Janszoon would have
understood that. His was the first of the deliberate, planned, voyages
exploring Australia, ordered by the Dutch East India Company.